Tag: QUILTBAG

Reivew: Tipping the Velvet

It’s Friday night and I’m pretty exhausted, so this isn’t really a proper review; instead, some notes on a novel I really loved recently.

Tipping the Velvet is the first novel by established historical novelist Sarah Waters, which should tell you most of what you need to know.

Namely, that here be VICTORIAN LESBIANS.

Our Heroine is Nancy, an oyster-girl from Whitstable, Kent, who falls in love with a woman from the theatre: Kitty, a cross-dressing singer. After a suitable period of wistful sighing on both sides, Kitty whisks her off to London, there to become a star – and to embark on a journey through Victorian London’s hidden queer scene in search of a place she can find acceptance.

As in Waters’ wonderful Fingersmith, the romantic suspense, especially in the first half of the novel, is incredible. I don’t often ship couples in novels, because I don’t often stumble across fictional romances that convince me – but the mixture of desire and shame and repressed sexuality that Nancy feels for Kitty is irresistible.

The novel’s quite episodic: Nancy moves through a variety of roles as she moves through London (I have a feeling that she does so west to east, but I may be wrong). There’s a lot of emphasis on how she uses clothing to perform these various roles, which I found pretty interesting: she spends time living as a man, first on the streets of London and then in the home of a sadistic, wealthy lesbian widow. That, and her brief career on stage as a cross-dresser alongside Kitty, makes her clothing choices throughout the novel extremely loaded. To take just a couple of examples: she starts dressing as a man on the streets (as opposed to on the stage) because she can move more freely in the city and attract less attention when she does so; she begins a brief career as a rent boy when she’s wearing the uniform of a specific regiment whose members are known for such activities. Clothes in this novel tend to be catalysts: they can be both empowering and restrictive. There aren’t that many authors who acknowledge this everyday reality, and I found it fascinating.

This attention to the detail of how people perform cultural meanings extends beyond clothing: Waters evokes the sounds and smells and tastes of London settings from the West End theatres to Smithfield Meat Market. It’s detail that gives Tipping the Velvet great verisimilitude – it feels solidly researched and true to how a Victorian person in Nancy’s position might have lived. That’s important from a storytelling point of view, but it’s also relevant to the novel’s political project, which is that of queering Victorian history: imagining a lifestyle that’s been erased by popular culture and by centuries of gatekeeping by straight white cis men. (Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge claims that the queer elements of Tipping the Velvet are not actually based on historical research – it’s a testament to Waters’ writing how much this surprises me.) I love the way that we discover this history, this queer culture that we never imagined might be there, alongside Nancy: as she’s drawn into this hidden side of London, so are we. And so, when Nancy finally does find safety and acceptance and people who will love her in the way she wants to be loved, it’s a relief for us too. I almost cried when I finished Tipping the Velvet. It is more lovely than I can say.

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Ten Diverse Books

  1. The Fifth Season N.K. Jemisin. What I love about The Fifth Season, and the other novels in the Broken Earth trilogy, is the way it decouples minority representation from its discussion of how institutional discrimination traumatises its victims. In its world, queerness of all kinds is unremarkable, women occupy leadership roles unquestioned, and dark skin is the norm. Which means that its queer and female characters and its characters of colour are not defined by those things as they so often are in popular culture. And yet its society is also, like ours, fundamentally shaped by structures intentionally designed to exclude and oppress and discriminate. I don’t think I’ve read another novel that does this work (Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire comes close, I think, but not as elegantly): it embraces the complexity of our world and the people in it in a way that’s equal parts horrifying and gratifying.
  2. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Palimpsest doesn’t touch directly on issues of oppression and discrimination as Jemisin’s work does, but it’s undoubtedly a very queer novel. Palimpsest is a queer city, and it queers the people who come to it.
  3. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. This sprawling city fantasy is in part a novel about multiculturalism and integration, and Mieville looks at it from a number of different angles. There’s the experience of Yagharek as he enters polluted New Crobuzon for the first time, and, later on, Isaac’s profound misunderstanding of what his crime means culturally; Lin’s simultaneous discomfort in, and nostalgia for, the khepri ghetto; and the vodyanoi dock workers’ strikes which form a constant background to the novel. Then there are all the entities who are so alien we really can’t comprehend them: the Weavers, with their inscrutable aesthetic sense; the artificial intelligence that is the Construct Council; even Hell’s envoy. It’s a kind of tapestry of ways of seeing the world; again, it’s a novel that embraces complexity.
  4. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. This is just – lovely. It constructs a world founded on the principles of tolerance. There are blind spots, of course: AI rights, some interspecies relationships. There are individual bigots. And there are arguments. But generally it’s a novel full of characters working to understand each other and make space for each other. And I think we also get the sense that the authorities are working to do the same thing, even if it’s a long and difficult process.
  5. Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters. I think this is 2018’s Our Tragic Universe for me; I think it’s going to appear on a lot of lists for the foreseeable future. I just, I love its project of queering Victorian history, digging up a past that’s been largely erased by popular culture and popular memory. I love that it takes its lesbian heroine through heartbreak and isolation but knows better than to leave her there. I love that it (re)constructs this whole disruptive queer community in a society we like to think of as straight-laced and prudish.
  6. God’s War – Kameron Hurley. God’s War has its own problems, not the least of which is that it’s set in an Islamic culture in the throes of a destructive, age-old holy war. Like. I see where Hurley was going with that – it’s important to have SFF that isn’t based on Judaeo-Christian cultures. But it seems like too easy a stereotype. What the novel does have is a whole load of badass women who are unapologetically feminine (even if they’re also ruthless killers) and queer, actual explicit bi representation, and a deeply-rooted portrayal of interracial and international tension.
  7. Everfair – Nisi Shawl. Everfair was really not my favourite novel: I found it a bit of a slog, and I didn’t get on well with the huge cast of characters and the big chronological gaps in each of their stories. But I also think those things are key to its project, which is an important one. Like Tipping the Velvet, it’s a reclamation of history; it revisits and reworks the colonial underpinnings of steampunk, to create a space for those who lose out from them – people of colour, non-Christians, women and queer people, mainly. And it’s also about how oppression is intersectional, and the relative layers of privilege everyone has, and how those privileges conflict.
  8. Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee. This is hard SF set in a heavily Asian-inflected society. As in The Fifth Season, the world of the novel is both structurally oppressive and queer-friendly, and there are all kinds of complexities around class. It’s also a novel that revolves around fundamental differences in the way people think about the world, right down to the conceptual level: its dystopian government’s exotic weapons are powered by consensus reality, so to take a different view of the world is to commit heresy.
  9. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. I have a feeling that if I read this again I might be dreadfully disappointed, but I remember it as a really interesting take on reproductive rights and feminism in a species for whom giving birth is literally and invariably fatal. (There was also lots of physics. With graphs. I ignored it.)
  10. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. You’ll have heard that Ancillary Justice‘s big gimmick is using the pronoun “she” for every character. Which is true, and quite interesting as a device; there are some persuasive trans readings of the novel. But…it’s not really a novel about gender; it’s much more interested in imperialism and how it co-opts the identities of its subjects.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Refrigerator Monologues

The ever-wonderful Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues is a series of linked short stories in which a group of women in the afterlife, calling themselves the Hell Hath Club, tell their stories one by one. They’re all women who’ve been fridged – killed or depowered to motivate the men in their lives.

The fridging trope isn’t by any means confined to superhero media, but that’s where the term started; and so the women of the Hell Hath Club are all the girlfriends or wives or love interests of various superheroes.

I’m not generally a fan of superhero stories: the closest I’ve come to reading a superhero comic is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which kinda counts but not really, and I pretty much can’t stand superhero films, which in my experience tend towards uncomplicated moral dilemmas, near-constant fight scenes that never lead anywhere, and actors whose idea of looking conflicted actually makes them look constipated.

But Valente achieves a surprising amount of variation in her stories, which I really enjoyed. So while we’ve got recognisable superhero heroines like Paige Embry, a scientist who gets killed when she tries to help her superhero boyfriend defeat the villain she helped create, we’ve also got women like Bayou, Queen of Atlantis, whose love interest assumes she needs rescuing from the sea despite her ruling an underwater society; Julia, a woman with superpowers who’s gaslighted and pushed away by the male superheroes because she’s so much stronger than they are; and Pauline Ketch, an arsonist who courts supervillain Mr. Punch, helps him escape from the asylum they’re both trapped in, and is murdered by him for her trouble.

There’s a strange wildness to these stories that I wouldn’t expect to find in a superhero universe. There’s a woman who lives a different life each day of the week, and only knows it for ten minutes every Sunday. There are superheroes who bring art to life, like something out of a China Mieville novel. There’s an undersea palace made of shipwrecks. And that wonderful range, it seems to me, is part of Valente’s point: it’s a rebuke to superhero media that see women as one-dimensional objects to motivate the men in their lives, when women, in fact, have lives just as colourful and wonderful and varied as men.

It’s important, too, that the women tell their own stories – that the microphone is handed to them, as it were, so they get to reclaim their deaths from sexist storytellers. And it’s also pretty interesting that the stories mostly refuse the conservative moral stance of superhero media: Pauline Ketch the arsonist is granted the same space as Paige Embry the scientist, as she’s just as much a victim of misogyny as her “good” counterparts. That’s not to say, necessarily, that the book approves of arson. It just sees superheroes and supervillains as two sides of the same coin, locked in dramatic but pointless conflicts that are utterly irrelevant to the vast majority of “ordinary” people.

If The Refrigerator Monologues has a flaw, it’s that it’s not exactly subtle. For all its variety of tone and subject matter, its six stories make the same point six times. It’s a necessary point, and everyone has a lot of fun while it’s being made. But there’s also not a lot to be said about it. And it’s unfortunate that we only hear from the romantic partners of superheroes, not their mothers or sisters or daughters or aunts or best friends. If there’s one thing we know about misogyny, it’s that it’s endlessly adaptable; it takes a multitude of insidious forms. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be such a problem. And it’s kind of a shame The Refrigerator Monologues only takes a shot at one particular subset of misogynies – especially given that Western culture is peculiarly obsessed with romantic love anyway.

And yet. At the end of it all, we have a group of women, friends and sometimes lovers, telling each other their stories, reclaiming their deaths, supporting each other and singing together – an antidote to the world of toxic misogyny they’ve left behind. The Hell Hath Club is glorious, and I’d love to read more stories from its members.

A Doctor Who Post: Thoughts on “Blink” and “Midnight”

This post contains spoilers.

Presumably in celebratory anticipation of the fact that the first lady Doctor is coming to our screens this autumn, the BBC has made all 146 new Who episodes available free on iPlayer.

You guys, that’s three whole series, plus Christmas specials, of David Tennant doing what he does best.

So I want to do something a little bit different this evening, and talk about a couple of new Who episodes I’ve rewatched recently: Steven Moffat’s Blink, and Russell T. Davies’ Midnight. Because I think putting them side-by-side will help me tease out some of the differences between these two writers-and-showrunners, and elucidate why I prefer Davies’ work to Moffat’s.

Blink‘s one of the most famous new Who episodes – maybe the most famous – while Midnight tends, I think, to be overlooked. Everyone remembers the Weeping Angels; hardly anyone remembers that the Tenth Doctor nearly got killed by a bunch of scared, ordinary humans.

Let’s start with Blink, then: a classic haunted house story. A woman called Sally Sparrow (played, astonishingly, by the now internationally famous Carey Mulligan), and her friend Kathy Nightingale go to a creepy old house to take photographs. There’s a knock at the door: a young man bringing a message for Sally, from his grandmother, who died twenty years ago. Her name, he reveals, was Kathy Nightingale. And Sally’s friend has disappeared. Later on, the Doctor tells Sally that she was sent into the past by the Weeping Angels, creatures who can only move when nothing’s looking at them. The rest of the time, they’re statues.

Midnight, meanwhile, is a classic bottle episode. The Doctor and Donna are visiting the titular Midnight, a diamond planet bathed in lethal xtonic light. The Doctor decides to take a shuttle to a beauty spot four hours from the spa where he’s left Donna – but the shuttle breaks down an hour from help, leaving its seven passengers and three staff stranded on a toxic and supposedly barren planet. And that’s when something outside starts knocking.

There are some obvious points of similarity here: both episodes are horror stories; they’re both relatively low-budget; both of them are designed to fit around the filming commitments of the show’s stars. (Blink features the Doctor and Martha for all of about five minutes, while Donna only appears in two short scenes in Midnight.) They both fill a specific Whovian ecological niche.

But they exploit that niche in quite different ways, and that’s what I’m interested in. Moffat, ever a lover of puzzles and schemes and metafiction, turns to Gothic excess and the peculiarly Victorian device of unfolding mysteries through texts – Kathy’s letter, the DVD Easter egg through which the Doctor warns Sally of the Weeping Angels, the scrawled warning on the wall of the haunted house. Moffat externalises (externalises what, I’ll get into in a moment). Davies, by contrast, turns inward: a claustrophobic shuttle, the mounting panic of its passengers, the horror of encountering something that may not be there at all. This, too, is a kind of Gothic: it is Gothic in the way that it refuses to explain its central mystery (was there a monster or not? if there was, what kind of monster was it? what did it want with the humans on the shuttle? and what will it do now, with Midnight evacuated?), in the way it operates through gaps and suggestions and things left half-said.

So what are these episodes grappling with? What demons are they trying to purge through their use of the uncanny and the unseen?

With Blink, I think, the answer is relatively straightforward: this is an episode that indexes our fear of a past we can’t quite see, except in frozen moments recorded in a letter or on film; frozen moments terrifyingly mimicked by the angels’ seemingly inexplicable stop-motion movement. The episode is solved by making the past legible, by joining up the textual fragments – drawing a line from the Doctor losing his TARDIS in 1968 to Sally Sparrow handing him everything he’ll need to know to get it back in 2007. (It’s interesting that Sally herself doesn’t seem to have a past. She doesn’t have a job or a family. She is obsessed with old places, though, and it seems suggestive in this context that the episode ends with a specific nod to the future: when she hands the folder to the Doctor, she takes the hand of Kathy’s brother Larry. Having exorcised the demons of the past, she’s ready to move on to a future with Larry.)

Midnight, though, doesn’t bother with elaborate metaphors. Its stripped-back aesthetic – no special-effects monster, no McGuffins – means we’ve only got one thing to concentrate on: the humans on the shuttle and their rapidly amplifying panic. The horror here comes as much from what these people – normal, pleasant people for the most part, people who generally think themselves decent – are capable of as it does from the possibly-possessed Skye Silvestry (played by the always electric Lesley Sharp).

And, after all, is she possessed? As one of the passengers points out, she’s the most terrified of them all when the shuttle breaks down; she’s recently broken up with her long-term girlfriend. Could her actions be the result of hysteria? Could those knocks have been only rocks falling, after all?

I don’t think this is an interpretation that the episode supports, actually, but the very fact that there’s room for it is an indication that Davies isn’t really interested in the supernatural whys and wherefores of his set-up. He’s interested in human reactions to what we decide is Other, and therefore dangerous – which makes it a pretty interesting episode to watch at this moment in human history.

It’s pretty noticeable that Midnight is generally a lot more inclusive than Blink: Davies’ future is one in which a shuttle hostess’ standard greeting, one she repeats under pressure, is “Ladies, gentlemen and variations thereupon”; it’s one in which no-one raises an eyebrow at a woman having recently been in a relationship with another woman (although, I am slightly side-eyeing Davies’ decision to make this one queer character the victim of the episode). I also enjoyed the way bombastic Professor Hobbes’ repeated denigrations of his talented assistant Dee Dee were quite clearly gendered and racialised; we’re invited to see his behaviour as selfish, sexist and racist, and that works interestingly with the way the possessed Skye is othered. Blink, on the other hand, is full of manipulative men preying on women in vulnerable situations: the on-duty police officer who asks Sally for her number (we’re expected to find this cute); the 1920s farm labourer following Kathy across the fields after she’s asked him not to (she ends up marrying him); and Larry, who we see at the end of Blink apparently trying to guilt-trip Sally into a relationship (as we’ve seen, he turns out to represent her future). The fact that Moffat clearly sees nothing wrong with any of this is of a piece with his later work on Doctor Who, and as such is not especially surprising. The fact that fandom has collectively chosen to erase this fact (Blink is often trotted out as compensation for all Moffat’s Whovian crimes, “he may be ragingly sexist, but at least he wrote Blink”) is pretty troubling.

On this subject: let’s think, finally, about who the Doctor is in these two episodes. Because in Blink, the Doctor is, basically, a manipulative arsehole, manoeuvring a terrified Sally like a chess piece, keeping vital information from her. He doesn’t tell her, for example, that he’s set the TARDIS to leave her behind when it dematerialises towards the end of the episode; sure, he knows the Angels will be immobilised, but she doesn’t, and neither does Larry, and if the Angels are scary on our screens can you only imagine what they’d be like in real life? And what about the people he sends forwards in time to warn Sally? They have to get to her the hard way, without time travel, waiting all their lives just to get a message to her – and all, ultimately, so the Doctor can get his TARDIS back. Why can’t he transport these lost travellers back to their own time?

In other words, the Doctor treats people like puzzles, or pawns, things to be moved around for his own benefit. Which is also, I think, how Moffat treats his characters: think of the Impossible Girl, the Girl Who Waited; they’re puzzles for the Doctor to solve, not people in their own right. They’re bits of plot.

Whereas Davies’ Doctor in Midnight is interested in everyone as a person. He spends time chatting to each of his fellow passengers and finding out their stories (apart from, notably, the hostess, who remains pointedly unnamed). He’s even interested in what the monster wants, and in how he can help it. Sure, he’s not perfect – “I’m clever!” he says, desperately, as his fellow passengers begin turning on him – but look at how the very structure of the episode interests us in each of these characters, and encourages us to see them as the Doctor does, as complex people. The biggest tragedy in Midnight is for someone to have their voice coopted by someone – or something – else.

And, again, I think that focus is reflected in the rest of Davies’ work for Doctor Who: it sees people as complex, baggy, not always thoroughly good and not always thoroughly bad. I’m not, of course, saying that Davies-era Who was always a masterpiece of subtle characterisation, because it wasn’t. It was a monster-of-the-week science fiction show, sometimes glorious, sometimes silly. But it had as its founding ethos the idea that everyone deserves respect as themselves, as unique and interesting and human – which sometimes means cowardly and weak and stupid, and sometimes means being capable of great sacrifice. And it was that which made Davies’ universe bigger and wilder and more wonderful than all the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey-ness Steven Moffat ever came up with.

Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2018

  1. The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The conclusion to the Broken Earth trilogy, and I think the only book that’s made me cry so far this year. In an airport. It is devastating and hopeful, bleak and beautiful all at once. It’s a book about climate change and motherhood and the trauma that systematic oppression inflicts on its victims and its perpetrators alike. It’s extremely unusual, to say the least, to find a fantasy novel that’s even half as ambitious and important.
  2. Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters. I finished this just today, in fact, and it came pretty close to being the second book to make me cry this year. It’s a novel about a Victorian oyster-girl who falls in love with a male impersonator at the theatre, and follows her to London. Waters is amazing at romantic suspense, at writing the sweet painful bliss of seduction, and I spent the four days it took me to read Tipping the Velvet utterly under its spell.
  3. Rosemary and Rue – Seanan McGuire. The first novel in McGuire’s Toby Daye series was exactly what I hoped it would be: smart and fun and not afraid of dealing with darkness, and set in a version of Faerie that’s magical without being twee.
  4. What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This is a dense book, a collection of essays delving into the depths of philosophy, theology, history and aesthetics. But it’s worth taking the time and the care to engage with it: it’s a book that advocates empathy, and thorough engagement with the world, and the importance of the humanities in this career-obsessed society.
  5. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. 2018 for me has so far been marked by a growing awareness, and a concomitant grief, of just what a parlous state we’ve brought our planet to. Green Earth contributed to that awareness, but it also gave me some hope: hope that maybe we can fix our broken social system and find the political and social will to do something about rampant climate change before it’s too late.
  6. Space Opera – Catherynne M. Valente. Space Opera’s rather grown on me since I finished it and found it a little insubstantial. Sure, it’s a story about Eurovision in space. Sure, its ending is schmaltzy as all get-out. But it’s hard to resist its glitter and its goodwill and its generous, inclusive approach to the aliens who inhabit the galaxy – as well as the humans fighting for Earth’s survival.
  7. The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne M. Valente. While I was reading it, I enjoyed The Refrigerator Monologues a lot more than Space Opera. But…it’s faded a little in my memory by comparison. Partly I think that’s because it’s a collection of short stories about superheroes, or, rather, the girlfriends of superheroes, women who are “fridged” to advance the stories of men. I see Valente’s point, and it’s well and beautifully made, but I just don’t find superheroes that interesting. And the collection as a whole is a little one-note.
  8. Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. This is just a fascinating look at how cities have been portrayed and conceived of throughout human history, romping through sources as diverse as Thomas More’s Utopia and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, looping round and round its points in a kind of collage without ever quite saying what it means. I’m fascinated by the connections between architecture and literature, so this was absolutely perfect for me.
  9. The Real-Town Murders – Adam Roberts. This is a novel I admired more than liked. I mean, I enjoyed reading it; but not as much as I enjoyed nearly everything else on this list. But, like all of Roberts’ writing, it is doing complex, interesting work with genre, and genre expectations, and the headlong splintering of our shared culture.
  10. Provenance – Ann Leckie. Provenance has this fascinating double structure – just when you think you’ve got to the bottom of things you find a whole nother world behind them. Like Leckie’s Ancillary series, it places a lot of emphasis on identity politics and cultural norms and etiquette. And it does some very heavy lifting in imagining a culture that’s genuinely different from our own Western one, especially when it comes to gender norms and family structures.

(The prompt for this post came from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor

I feel like I say this more often than not, but Jerry Della Femina’s From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor was not quite what I expected.

It was the subtitle that drew me in: Front Dispatches from the Advertising War. Advertising is my field, so to speak. When I’m not overthinking pop culture, I’m a bid writer, which is a specific kind of advertising that calls on you to hold someone’s interest over pages and pages of technical information. It’s tough. It’s fun. If you want to write for your living but also want, you know, financial security, check out becoming a bid writer.

The point being that advertising, the process of advertising, of getting inside your audience’s head and staying there till you’ve said what you want to say, fascinates me. So a memoir about America’s golden age of advertising, by the founder of a major advertising agency, seemed just the thing for a holiday in Norfolk.

(“The cult classic that inspired Mad Men”, says a little silver circle on the cover of my library copy. I haven’t watched Mad Men, but I do love me some 1970s glamour, and so! here we are!)

Here we are, in New York, 1970. The first thing you need to know about From Those Wonderful Folks is that Della Femina is, well, a bit of an arsehole, even by the standards of his time. You can’t read a page, practically, without stumbling on a sexist or homophobic or (as you might have guessed from the title, a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for a campaign for Panasonic) racist remark. Fairly unusually for me, the detail of the book was interesting enough that I could tune this out after a while – but your mileage may well vary.

The second thing, the more surprising thing, is that From Those Wonderful Folks doesn’t really have a coherent shape as a book. It doesn’t have a story. It’s not about a man who sets up an advertising agency (though presumably it could have been). It’s not even about a man who starts a career in advertising one day. It’s just…pages on pages of anecdotes, grouped loosely into chapters, written in slangy, repetitive and kind of terrible prose, like Della Femina has just talked at a dictaphone for several hours and some poor ghostwriter has tidied it up a bit and thrown it at the page as-is.

(Come to think of it, that’s probably exactly what happened.)

Another surprising thing: it’s nowhere near as scandalous as the cover copy would have you believe. Della Femina is very keen to establish that there’s nowhere near as much drinking or sex at the advertising agencies as the pop culture of the 1970s says there is. There are some delicate creative types (one anecdote is about a copywriter threatening to push his desk out of a high window), but delicate creatives have existed since Apollo killed Niobe’s children, so.

What From Those Wonderful Folks does have is some lovely insight into 1970s ad campaigns. This was a time when big, stuffy, old agencies with huge overheads were being threatened by younger, leaner, more creative operations, and were becoming more careful, more conservative, as a result. Della Femina looks at campaigns and pitches and business practices from across the industry, at why they worked or why they didn’t. There’s Volkswagen’s famous “Think Small” advert; the Jolly Green Giant; a disastrous campaign for low-calorie beer that failed because 1970s beer drinkers couldn’t give a fig about losing weight. It’s all this precise detail, this fine-tuned understanding of the psychology behind capitalist consumption, that, for me, made it worth wading through that terrible and decidedly unenlightened prose. It’s certainly not my favourite read of 2018 – not even close – but it’s pretty interesting, and worth a read if you’re into advertising and can look past the rampant 1970s prejudice.

Review: The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki is Joanne M. Harris’ first foray into adult epic fantasy; you’ll probably know her better as the author of Chocolat. It’s a retelling of the Norse myths, all the way through from creation to Ragnarok, from the point of view of Loki, trickster-god, god of stories and fire and generally pissing off The Man.

It should by rights be brilliant fun. It should be witty and irreverent and rich with meaning. I’m thinking Neil Gaiman at his darkest, most fairytale, least sexist best.

It is…not.

A disclaimer before I dive in: my knowledge of Norse mythology is limited to the brilliant Ragnarok/Cthulu mashup that is steampunk band The Mechanisms’ The Bifrost Incident, and a vague osmotic awareness that there are characters called Thor and Loki inhabiting the Marvel universe. Oh, and a sense of the uniquely Scandinavian grandeur of Norse mythology: mountains that hold the sky on their shoulders, relentless days and weeks and months of snow and ice, and gods to match – menacing, inscrutable, cold and above all huge. If there’s one thing Norse mythology should be, it’s awesome. It should inspire awe. That’s my feeling, anyway.

With that in mind: my overwhelming sense about The Gospel of Loki is that Harris isn’t clear on what she’s trying to do. As far as I can tell, she’s stuck pretty closely to her source material – apart from Loki’s voice. And therein lies the rub. Loki inhabits a world in which women – even goddesses – are things, domesticity is oppressive, femininity is insulting, and gay sex is banned. I think this is Harris’ idea of pre-modern Scandinavia. I don’t know whether it’s accurate (although given the 1950s-style prudishness of it all I suspect it isn’t really); it’s certainly plausible that all of this is in the original texts. But I don’t understand what the point is of repeating it all when Harris has already gone to the trouble of updating Loki’s voice. Why not use anarchic, disruptive Loki to interrogate the sexism and racism and homophobia on which the Norse myths are based (if indeed they are so based)?

That’s the thing, though: Harris’ Loki has no sting for all his talk. In a word, he’s boring. His wit and sarcasm is mainly limited to rote phrases like “so shoot me” and “it wasn’t an easy sell” and metaphors involving cookie jars and terribly misjudged jokes about women and mixing bowls. His cynicism doesn’t revitalise the Norse myths for a modern audience, which I think is what Harris is going for here; instead, it flattens them, makes their great dramas into dull soap operas. Even Ragnarok is boring when it’s narrated by this Loki, and if your apocalypse is boring then, I submit, you’re doing something wrong.

The Gospel of Loki isn’t a rewriting, a deconstruction or an interrogation of Norse mythology. Nor is it a direct translation that’s faithful to the spirit of the original. It’s a weird and pointless halfway house that doesn’t, despite its title, have anything useful or interesting to say about modernity or myth. It repeats harmful stereotypes which the author presumably doesn’t share. And the writing itself is flat, empty and superficial.

In short: I didn’t like it. Your mileage may vary. But probably not.